The Weight of History

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I was dismayed to read that this building in London was to be demolished as part of the rebuild of London Bridge Station. As part of a grad student project I had developed my own plan for the station which retained this building. How could this destruction be allowed to happen? I looked at it for a while until I could understand the reasoning. "Let it go", a commenter said. Letting go can be difficult.

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It's something I struggle with, as I personally love old buildings in cities. I also love density, adaptability, and survival of the cities I love, and sometimes those things are hard to reconcile. Older buildings have elements of hand craft and diversities of scale in the details that are rarely seen with modern construction methods. Mixes of buildings from different eras of history add to the interest of the cityscape and give a sense of continuity, of caring investment, of permanence.

Yet buildings are not permanent. Walking around Seattle I take note of all the buildings that will be lost in the next big earthquake. Or the beautiful and well-used low-rise buildings in areas that need to grow, to accommodate more people in the space these precious beauties occupy. I think of cities much older than ours that could easily be crushed and suffocated by the massive weight of their own history.

London deals with its history in pragmatic ways that sometimes seem destructively cruel. Venice, a city that for centuries rebuilt itself on the higher foundations of previous generations of buildings, is drowning because it tried to freeze history at a certain glorious point in time.

We may be losing many coastal cities in the future. Cities are organisms, ecosystems, they have to adapt or die. Do we perform triage, allowing loss of some (buildings) for the greater good, for overall survival? How do we learn to say goodbye, to admit when it may be time to let go? It's a painful question for which I don't have a satisfactory answer.

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